"It will make you powerful. But it will also make you weak. Your prowess in combat will be beyond any mortal's, but your weaknesses, your failings will increase as well." - Rick Riordan, The Last Olympian
It's been well-documented the nature of Alabama's rise to football legend during the tenure of Nick Saban. His programs hammered out in the searing foundry of The Process © all bear similar traits: the teams are talented, well-coached, focused, physical and relentless. After all, it is those very qualities that have led the Crimson Tide to the precipice of history, and the Tide is a mere three steps away from the date with destiny that seemed only a distant mirage in the dark ages following the 2006 season.
But truth told, many of those qualities are the by-product of another centerpiece of the Saban Process, maybe it's most critical component. Namely, because of the importance of players in the success of Saban's schemes, the man recruits with the fervor of a mad scientist, studying every physical, emotional and intellectual trait of his chosen pupils before offering them a spot among the nation's most elite college football players. He is a drill instructor walking the bunk line during an inspection, leaving no rack unturned, prying the edges of every toenail and lifting the lid on every foot locker to make sure a recruit is worthy of initiation into the ranks of Saban's legion.
Our Dark Lord himself has iterated that this dedication to finding the right people for the job is the most important part of building a championship caliber team, the cornerstone at the foundation of much of Alabama's success. Preach as one could about hard work, discipline, character and the like, it is the fact that Saban gets the most talented players in the nation to buy-in to his system and its accompanying way of life that has made Bama successful. Recently, Saban revealed that once he becomes interested in a prospective recruit, he views every play that athlete has ever played on a field of organized sport. Every. Damn. Play. For some of these athletes, that filmography dates back to middle school, but in Saban's mind, one can never know too much about a recruit. As Coach Bryant once said , "If a man is a quitter, I'd rather find out in practice than in a game. I ask for all a player has so I'll know later what I can expect." Though Bryant and Saban differ in many ways, their adherence on the talent and heart of each player as part of the greater whole is a unifying theme. This detail-oriented approach provides ODL with the raw pig iron from which he ultimately hammers his steely champions, and it is the strength of what Bama does both on and off the field.
Saban's willingness to go to extreme lengths to gain targeted recruits highlights one major point: a team will rise and fall on the tide of its components. The players themselves are the very strength of Saban's system, not his scheme or the team of assistants he's assembled. Certainly, they play a role in the ultimate success of the program, let's not kid ourselves. But in Saban's world, it all begins and ends with the men who take the field in crimson, as they are the muscle that puts his mental machinations to work.
Talented recruits and their Process-driven alter-egos are Bama's strength. That is a given. However, as unfathomable as it may seem, they are also the team's weakness, the Achilles heel of an otherwise unassailable tool of domination. Because Bama's success depends so much on the players themselves, when those players suffer the inevitable injuries of a physical game like football, their absences create a ripple effect that cascades throughout the entire team, and thusly, its on-field performance. Yes, let's make no mistake, Bama's ranks are among the deepest in the nation when it comes to on-field talent. But experience weighs heavily into the equation as well, and a young, inexperienced player, talented as he may be, almost always undergoes a little shell shock upon entering the game cold for an injured starter. And for a team like Bama that relies on precision and advanced decision-making by the men on the field, a moment's lapse of reason can spell disaster against a strong opponent.
This week, while Bama's foe on the field is almost laughable in comparison to the firepower the Tide brings to the table, the spectre of injury will haunt Alabama, likely through season's end. It may not be the type of haunting that causes sudden cardiac arrest, frankly, but even one miscue against a foe like Auburn of the eventual SEC East champion could cause Bama's dreams of a three-peat to evaporate into the ether like the ectoplasm of some cast-off haint.
No one expects the Mocs of UT-Chattanooga to give Alabama's second string much of a game, let alone its starters. But it is important to note the injury news after a physical battle with LSU and then, the following week, with Mississippi State. AJ McCarron has not looked himself since the LSU game. Saban explained that AJ has a rotator cuff injury, and it is certain that the true extent of that injury is known to only a trusted few within Bama's inner circle. The Tide's best corner, Deion Belue, is still somewhat hobbled by an ankle injury, and now Bama's workhorse tailback T.J. Yeldon suffers from the same ailment. Reserve (if only in theory) corner Bradley Sylve also is struggling to overcome ankle issues, as is starting power tight end Brian Vogler. Bama was already without veteran safeties Vinny Sunseri and Nick Perry from injuries earlier in the season. These names I've mentioned above are all key player, trusted veteran contributors to the success Baa has enjoyed in its most recent run of success. At the beginning of the season, they were the Tide's strength. But now, they are evidence of Bama's soft underbelly, and not even the toughest armor can protect Alabama from the gouges of their opponents in the coming weeks.
Sure, thanks to superior depth, Bama has he bodies to fill any roles potentially vacated by recent injuries. For example, this week in practice, Jalston Fowler, after spending much of the year in the running back role, has seen more time with the tight ends as a way of mitigating the effect of Brian Vogler's potential inability to play this week. With Yeldon potentially hobbled to some extent, we may see Kenyan Drake carry the mail, and certainly, at least one of Bama's stable of young potential superstar backs will see playing time that in a future contest could be quite meaningful. The defensive backfield has enough talent to fill the void against all but the most potent passing offenses, but again, one more injury could literally be the flour sack that cracks the mule's spine. Bama is still a contender because of its superior depth, but at some point, the rash of recent injuries has to be cause for some concern, if not this week, then in the weeks to come.
So as Bama has lived by the sword wielded by its army of 5 star recruits who realize their potential, so could they die by said weapon due to the injuries if those young warriors cannot be counted upon. It is a paradox fans of the Crimson Tide hope they never have to see come to fruition. It won't happen this week, I am confident in saying that the battle on the scoreboard, at least for this weekend, has likely already been won, as much as saying so contradicts one of the primary tenets of The Process ©. That's why it's so much more important for Bama to rest the injured starters who don't need many reps to stay honed, while possibly whetting the edge of a few newcomers to step up into the fray in the heat of battle if indeed they are called upon.
I'm not going to offer much in the way of a point by point breakdown of this weekend's coming game, because to do so would be an insult to your intelligence. We all know what should and will happen when the hapless Mocs venture into BDS this weekend. The real battle this week is against physiology, against bumps and bangs and bruises that have been ignored most of the season, but tend to add up to a greater sum at this time of the year.
This week's game should provide a brief, between-battles respite for the men in crimson, and the best case scenario is for the Tide to rest the dinged starters, get some valuable reps for those who may be called upon in the coming weeks, and emerge from the game as injury-free as possible.
For the battle begins anew next week, and we all know what remains on the horizon. Unlike in previous years, a healthy Tide team will likely be needed to foil the upset-deluded heathens from across yonder plains. The Tide will need a muscle-flexing performance against Auburn as a catapult to the greatness that awaits them on the other side of January 7.
This week is a formality, but it can turn into a liability if injuries arise, even if the Tide wins the day. As always, pray that we never learn the extent of the potential worst case scenario...and hope for the best.